In the car business, we all know the power of word of mouth. We’re often put on the path to more sales by our best customers — the ones who share their positive experiences with others and put their friends and family in our trust. But word of mouth can be equally damaging, especially when a customer who has had a bad experience shares his or her perspective with friends, neighbors and co-workers. Today, word of mouth is gaining steam and having a greater impact than ever. With the rise of social media and consumer-generated content online, shoppers have a broad platform from which they can share opinions and influence others’ buying decisions. Do you know what they’re saying about your dealership? The answer could be impacting your business.Consumer reviews have gained prominence as a fixture on most shopping websites in recent years. From travel to electronics, consumers are weighing in with feedback on their buying experience and the products they purchase. Popular online retailers such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com make it easy for shoppers to see what other consumers think before they take the plunge and buy on their sites.
There are also entire sites dedicated to consumer reviews of products and services. At Yelp.com, for example, visitors are encouraged to reveal honest insights on local businesses and services, commenting on everything from martinis to mechanics. TripAdvisor.com is a must-visit site for millions of travelers who consult the site’s reviews before booking a vacation. It’s no surprise that with a purchase as large as an automobile, there are sites dedicated to rating the car-buying experience, including DealerRater.com, which allows car buyers to evaluate their dealership sales and service experience.
Consumers now seek out and expect to find consumer reviews as part of their online research and shopping process. According to a recent study, three out of four shoppers stated that it was extremely or very important to read customer reviews before making a purchase. And while expert reviews are also important, these shoppers prefer peer reviews over expert reviews by a 6-to-1 margin. 
The importance these reviews play in shoppers’ decisions about where and when to buy, combined with the ease with which consumers can now make their voice heard to a wide audience, make it imperative for dealerships to monitor and manage their online reputation. Experiences that were once shared in the local barber shop are now shared across the web, and search engines grant easy access to all. What’s being said about your dealership can either drive sales or divert buyers to your competitors. Staying on top of the conversation and implementing steps to positively influence the dialogue can set you apart from competitors and steer online buyers your way.
Know What Your Customers are Saying
Managing your reputation online starts by listening to the internet conversation and learning if consumers are, in fact, sharing opinions about your store. Given the vast online world, you may not be able to track every online mention, but staying on top of key comments is neither as time-consuming nor as difficult as you might think. Here are a few places to start:
- Scan the search engines: How many times have you gone to Yahoo! or Google and entered your own name to see what comes up about you in the search engines? Do you do the same for your store? If not, we recommend a regular search engine scan. Type variations of your store’s name into the engines, a practice that can often point you to online comments about your store.
- Set a date with DealerRater.com: Given its specialization, we recommend that internet sales managers and general managers alike keep a routine watch on DealerRater.com for comments about your store.
- Check-out eBay Buyer Feedback: eBay Motors encourages customers to leave dealer feedback that can be read by your prospects. If you use the online auction site even just a few times a year, you’ll want to stay informed about what’s being said.
- Visit local guides: There are a variety of local directories, many of which feature ratings tools for local businesses. In addition to Yelp.com, check out sites such as Yahoo! Local and CitySearch.com to see how consumers rate your service.
- Monitor comments on blogs: Google and other services make it easy to track what’s being said on blogs with new search tools specifically designed for the blogosphere. A few of our favorites include Google Blog Search, Technoratti.com and BlogPulse.com. Use these sites just like you would a search engine to monitor what’s being said about your store in blogs.
Take Feedback to Heart
There’s a lot you can learn from your customers, especially when you take time to listen. Now that you know what’s being said, whether it’s good or bad, you’ll want to take the feedback to heart and turn it into action.
- Share the findings: Find a forum within the dealership to share comments. Perhaps take time at a weekly staff meeting to review remarks customers have posted online. When the remarks are good, staff will feel rewarded and praised for a job well done. You can take this a step further by posting positive comments in the dealership as a motivator for your staff. Negative feedback also presents an opportunity for communication and reflection. It can be used to discuss where there is room for improvement. In some cases, you’ll encounter a no-win customer, which serves to remind staff that you may not be able to please everyone.
- Don’t get defensive: Seeing negative comments about your store posted online can be difficult, particularly if you pride yourself on matching customers with the right car and selling the vehicle at a fair price. Keep in mind that most shoppers will understand that they are reading a one-sided account and will cut you some slack if the general tone of the remaining comments is favorable. You may be tempted to set the record straight by sharing your account, but you also run the risk of: a) appearing defensive, b) engaging in a public argument if the customer refutes your version of events and c) giving a negative review more attention than it might otherwise receive. In nearly every instance, the best response is to avoid being defensive and not to refute the customer. After all, “the customer is always right.” Instead, a simple apology will go a long way. By taking ownership in your response, you may gain ground with the customer in question. You’ll also earn credibility with others reading the comments.
- Make necessary adjustments to your sales and service process: Persistent negative feedback may be a strong sign that there is a problem with your process or your people. Since we know most consumers are inclined to leave positive reviews, a pattern of negativity is a sign that you may need to take a new approach.
Influence Your Online Reputation
While consumers control the online feedback mechanisms, that does not mean you need to sit idly back and wait for them to dictate your message. You can play an active role in managing and influencing your online reputation.
- Encourage online feedback: Just as you would encourage customers to positively contribute to your CSI, encourage customers to go online and share their honest opinions about their experience. Many customers will take you up on the offer, and we find that they usually have great things to say. Let them be your online ambassadors, fueling traffic to your store based on their remarks. At Cars.com, for example, we’ve found that consumers overwhelmingly post favorable reviews about the vehicles they own or have previously owned. In fact, 84 percent of the reviews rate the car in question with a four- or five-star rating – with an average of 4.4 stars.
- Leverage credibility on your website and in your listings: Use positive customer reviews to your advantage. Include “testimonials” from satisfied customers who appreciated their experience at your store, plan to buy from you again and recommend you to their friends/family/colleagues. If your site is properly optimized for search engines, links to these favorable comments about your dealership will appear high on the results pages seen by prospects. These remarks give buyers a reason to choose your dealership. In addition to calling out favorable reviews, testimonials and comments, you’ll want to tell car shoppers what makes your dealership special. Discuss your business philosophy, community reputation and industry recognition; provide information about your dedicated, talented sales and service staff.
- Don’t fake it: The last thing you want to do, though, is add to the conversation by posting false compliments about your store or false complaints about your competitors. Taking this route may feel good at the time, but the dealers who do so frequently regret it. Sites such as DealerRater.com take these violations seriously: Not only are the offenders “called out” on the site, but they are punished. For each confirmed violation, no favorable ratings about their store will be published for three months.
No one knows better than you the value of your store’s brand and its role in helping you sell cars. In return for the time and effort you spend managing your online reputation, you’ll likely recoup on this investment in myriad ways: Not only will you be well regarded in your market, but you now have a built-in mechanism to help you continually review your sales processes and ensure they match the customer experience you promise and customers expect.
 2007 Survey by Bazaarvoice and Vizu Answers: Effect of Consumer Reviews